Monday, March 12, 2012

michael, whitney, amy ...

I have been wondering from time to time why the passing of Whitney Houston seemed more like a blip on the radar to me than the death of Michael Jackson, which at times, still seems surreal. Or even Amy Winehouse, while though not unexpected, seems tragic. One doesn't want to show disrespect to the recently deceased, but I can't help but feel that the end to Whitney's story was inevitable.

Author Nury Vittachi explored the same questions in an irreverent way on his blog, The Curious Diary of Mr. Jam. Some will undoubtedly be offended by his juxtapositions of "facts" such as:
5) Her place in musical history.
New, approved factoid:
“Fans will never forget her concerts because they were so uplifting.”
Inconvenient original fact:
“Fans will never forget her concerts because she often failed to show and you had to queue to get your money back.”
Whitney's problems with drugs were so well-known that her death was not only not a surprise, but became almost an anticlimax to a career that she had been trying to kill off for years. I have complete sympathy for her daughter, for all she must have gone through with a mother with such problems, as well as for what she must be going through now. But Vittachi is right on when he critiques the media and the rest of us for our automatic lionizing or revising of a departed star's status. He takes this idea even further in a post about John Lennon and Princess Di.

Like Whitney, the undeniably talented Amy Winehouse was a fresh and welcome voice on the music scene, but her music came from the place of her demons, and her public trials were too well-documented to hope that her story might have a different ending. With all of the singing shows on television and all the starry-eyed hopefuls desirous of a music career, no one seems to be holding up these talented ladies as a warning.

Which led me to question myself and why I still feel a little sad, even surprised, about how Michael Jackson's story ended. Certainly part of the reason, if I'm truthful, that I am inclined to be more sympathetic to Winehouse and Jackson is that I prefer their music to Houston's. I have always loathed the kind of power pop "diva" singing that Houston popularized. Sorry Celine, Mariah, etc. Having to re-listen to Houston's songs on the radio is not something I look forward to. Or the endless tributes by shows like Glee and American Idol. Houston is responsible for a certain kind of female singing, with endless vocal runs and flourishes, that may have been impressive to some once upon a time, but I think has tainted pop music. It's de riguer for young female singers to try to out-Whitney a song. Bleccch.

So what about Jackson? His whoo-hoos and panting and grunts became just as much of a vocal crutch in his songs as Houston's trills. Is it because, despite all of his controversy and eccentricities, his death still seemed unexpected? He, like Houston, had been virtually ignored on current radio until his death. Now it seems like a day doesn't go by without some contemporary mix radio programmer slipping in a Jackson song like Man in the Mirror or Rock With You.

What made me realize how seriously Jackson took his music was catching the documentary Michael Jackson's This Is It on demand. The concert film, directed by Kenny Ortega, was originally intended as documentary footage of the creation of Jackson's This Is It tour. Ortega claims that the footage was never intended for release, but the quality of some of the filmed sequences suggest there was always an eye to use them for some purpose other than merely reference. The film follows Jackson through the staging of many of his most famous songs, such as "Black or White," "Human Nature," and "Thriller," showing him to be clearly in creative control, as well as a perfectionist. We see that he is human too, with a sense of humor, but the camera always keeps a polite distance, never getting too close to him.

Maybe besides the talent of these people, what still makes the loss of Jackson more poignant is that he was always a bit of a mystery. His private life was not only very private, but at times incomprehensible. His story remains a mystery. Why did it happen, how did it happen? What happened to Amy and Whitney and so many other talented people like them is all-too-familiar. There is nothing mysterious about their endings, just depressing predictability.
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